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10 Questions for Panteha Abareshi

LEFT: A new piece, which is a bit of a "redraw" on the "intimacy is hell" piece (featured in Summer 2018, Volume 59, Issue 2). Every year Abareshi chooses a piece from the previous year to reimagine, "just to sort of see my own changes."

Tell us about one of the first pieces you created.
It’s interesting looking back on my early work because I become weary of distinguishing my amateurish drawings from my artistic pieces. The earliest “piece” I can firmly recall is a small, 40-page sketchbook that I filled completely. I consider the entire book one piece because it is more meaningful as an accumulation of my early works when I was still figuring out the basics of drawing faces. It’s an archive of my development, a concrete snapshot of the moments I realized what I want to do and create. Each page is filled with colorful drawings of girls cartoonishly rendered and the early starts of my pattern-work. I think it is difficult for me to truly see this as a piece of my work as I see all my work now because my style was so underdeveloped, and because I had not yet realized that what I want to communicate is my unarticulated struggles with mental illness and romance.

What artist(s) or works have influenced the way you work now?
I used to think it was strange that the artists I most admired, and was most

inspired by both in style but mostly in practice produced work that didn’t resemble my work at all. But now, of course, I’ve realized that inspiration isn’t cut and dry in that way. I am, naturally, more inspired by female artists. Jenny Saville has a always been an immense personal inspiration for me, just in the way she constructs narratives and delivers such a concise emotion through such seemingly “convoluted”, layered pieces. Even before I first began making my work, I have been enamored with Nathalie Du Pasquier’s pattern work, and the innovation behind Memphis Milano. That sort of vibrant, geometric deco work really influenced my love of patter-work and color and was what encouraged me to explore making patterns that emanate biological and cellular structures tying into my own struggles with health and the body.

As a whole, Baroque art is something I hold dear to my heart and have a resounding reverence for. Artemisia Gentileschi’s work and her depictions of the female form mean a great deal to me. Bernini’s sculptural work, particularly The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, inspire me emotionally both in terms of my own personal self and what emotions I can evoke through my own work. Joan Cornell√† is amazing to me, supremely inspiring. Bold and graphic, irreverent and upsetting to so many people. I love that his paintings are comics, or that his comics are paintings. As a contemporary artist working in illustration, I love seeing his work in such renowned spaces because it’s a reminder that there is space in the contemporary scene for the illustrative. Additionally, I am endlessly inspired by the writings of Haruki Murakami. It’s something I’ve said for as far back as my artistic career goes. His ability to evoke such specific and nostalgic sensations through such simple and eloquent language is something I hope to emanate in my own work through visual imagery.

What other professions have you worked in?
I haven’t worked in any other profession! I started my artistic career as a teen, and I have been lucky enough to be able to focus solely on that, getting my GED and spending two years just working on my art before college. I am now in school achieving my BFA and working constantly on my art. I did a brief stint in retail but it was at American Apparel and was mostly for the discount on the clothing. And the company went bankrupt a month or so after I got hired haha.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I was fully convinced I was going into medicine until I discovered how much art means to me and does for me. I first wanted to go to veterinary school, to specialize in large animal or perhaps marine animal care. I then moved on to wanting to be an

anesthesiologist, phlebotomist, cytopathologist, neuropathologist, forensic pathologist. Then I settled on wanting to go into neuroscience, ideally an experimental and research-based study of the brain. I flirted with the idea of being an English major during all this since I could read and write and have always had a passion for short fiction, but between both my parents being in the sciences and growing up in hospitals, it seemed the only logical option was to go into medicine. I am so, so thankful that I discovered illustration and art before going into a pre-med program and realizing I do not want to, and should not be in the medical profession.

What inspired you to create these pieces?
Living with both sickle cell and mental illness, I can (and frequently do) say that the depression hurts more. I get asked “What does the pain feel like?” so often

when I explain to people how the chronic pain from sickle cell is caused. But the question changes when explaining the suffering and turmoil I experience from my mental illness. Physical pain is easily conceivable for the human mind, and the validity of physical pain is accepted without question by society. However I have always found it so impossible to verbally articulate everything I experience daily with my depression and anxiety, especially to those who have no experience at all with mental illness. The contrast between the ease of understanding and sympathy for physical pain and the complete lack thereof for mental injury/distress/pain frustrates me immensely, but also inspires every one of my pieces. In my work, I am focused on making pieces that accurately capture the realities of mental illness, and I am often visually equating my struggles from my depression and anxiety to displays of physical pain.

I do not know if the English language has the capability of properly expressing the experiences, frustrations, anguish and turmoil that come with mental illness. But I have found that I am able to take distinct emotions, sensations, and struggles and say through my work, "This abstract feeling is the equivalent to this tangible display of physical pain.” Cuts, bruises, bleeding. Pulling one's own tooth out, cutting out one's own tongue. These are undeniably painful acts, to put into perspective how painful my depression really is. The women I draw represent struggle, and confusion but they also epitomize strength. There is strength in vulnerability, there is power is admitting that you are broken down. I also strongly identify with the spectrum of aromantisicm and asexuality. I have very strong aversions to the modern notions of romance, and my artwork is a direct expression of my beliefs that the way young people, especially girls, are taught to value, prioritize and derive happiness from “love” is damaging and wrong. I struggle constantly with societal standards for romance, love, and sex and express that in my work because I want to normalize the notion of women/people not craving intimacy. It is very easy for me to separate the human form from sexualization, even in situations of intimacy. In my experience, the (hyper)sexualization of women often creates a barrier between humans as it has become so engrained in us that closeness+bodies=sexual. Seeing women sexualized in situations where it is completely unprecedented makes me so angry and so intensely uncomfortable. It is very difficult and upsetting for me to be made to feel like my body is never safe from the prying eyes of those around me.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the artistic process?
Yes! I have been dying to put together a playlist of my best working music, so here it is:

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to create?
Because so much of my work is triggered by my emotions, I usually will find

inspiration for a piece and I immediately write it down in a notebook I carry with me. I’ll be thinking about something, or feeling something, and I get clear images of what I want to draw, so I write pretty detailed notes on it. There are small things that come to mind that I know I want the piece to contain, but the face and hair and the general appearance of the woman is more something I let come to me when I work.

Music is very important I need to have songs queued up or my playlist set so I know every song that comes up will be something I can work to. I usually work from home, but when I have deadlines or really want to push to finish something, I go to my favorite coffee shop closest to my house where I have my usual corner spot. I spread out all my things, taking up three seats usually, and I can go for hours non-stop there. It’s my best working environment because it’s less distracting than being in my room where I have so many possible preoccupations and distractions.

Who typically gets the first look at your work?
My father, and my best friend, Geneva. I text them pictures of the works in progress (if they don’t see them in person as I work on them) and always text the scan of the finished piece as soon as I have it.

If you could work in another form what would it be?
I absolutely love ceramics, and while I do a lot of ceramic work now, it’s by no means my main art practice or even close to being so. I would love to be a master potter, mix and create my own glazes and create sculptural pieces as well as funky “functional” pieces, like vessels that combine with sculpture. My paternal side is Iranian, and I love the traditional white and blue ceramic that use cobalt oxide on proceline or white-underglazed pieces to create elaborate and ornate patterns that narratives can be woven into. I also would love to work in textiles, creating massive tapestries with my pattern-work on them. All in good time, I hope.

What are you working on currently?
I am working on a new, large body of work for an upcoming show I have titled “Odontalgia”. All the works focus on the teeth, and I’m so proud to be working on a combination of sculptural and illustrative pieces that complement each other. It’s the largest series of cohesive work I’ve ever made, and the collection contains the largest-sized illustrations I’ve ever done, as well as my most extensive ceramic and sculptural work. It’s a lot of “firsts” and “biggests”, and I can see my own growth which is reassuring. I haven’t released any of the pieces yet, and I can’t wait for the reveal. Truly thrilling.


PANTEHA ABARESHI is an illustrator and artist making pieces that accurately capture the realities of mental illness, specifically depression and anxiety, and represent struggle, confusion, and strength. She lives with Sickle Cell Beta Zero Thalassemia, a genetic disease that causes her chronic pain, and in 2014, the condition led to her hospitalization. Her artwork focuses primarily on Women of Color because it is vitally important to her to depict WOC with mental illness, WOC who are not driven by romantic or sexual desires, and WOC as subjects in contemporary illustration and art. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.

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